In Defense of Density: Rethinking Jane Jacobs in the Era of Climate Change

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Cooperative Village, Lower East Side, NYC, apartment complex / Beyond My Ken – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons

What makes a strong community? If you’ve read Jane Jacobs, an image immediately comes to mind: side-by-side row houses, corner stores, parks you can see across. But the experience of life with climate change— in its early innings, anyway—suggests that this classic model may need an overhaul. A resilient neighborhood, that is, may not look very pretty.

Take my corner of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It generally lacks awnings and stoops, and provides a view of boxy towers and empty lots for five city blocks. These features bear the legacy of top-down planning, the kind that Jane Jacobs vilified in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But my experience after Superstorm Sandy suggests density can support the formation of urban community.

Superstorm Sandy left lower Manhattan without heat or power. My cluster of brick towers, set back from the street and hulking in a manner that would make Jacobs spit, fairly glowed with civic spirit. Men in their sixties made it their business to climb stairs in the dark, checking on older neighbors. Once we had all swung back into daily life, young families organized donation runs to flooded neighborhoods in Queens.

What about the design fostered civic spirit? I’d offer three overlapping categories: pathways, networks, and scale. Gracefulness had nothing to do with it – not outwardly, at least.

High-rise developments like mine have a limited number of pathways through them. People knew each other’s routine paths, so they happened to see each other coming and going. This made it easy to keep track of who was waiting out the power failure, who had access to supplies, and who needed a check-in.

Pathways became lifelines during the crisis. A much-used community room became a relief station with big jugs of water. A sidewalk became a phone-charging outpost. The two-way street that bisects our complex became headquarters for updates.

Density can support extensive networks—virtual and otherwise. People created digital communities on Facebook and other platforms so they could organize relief runs and share updates across the city. During the outage, this entailed a certain amount of complaining, but it also prompted a trove of donations to truly devastated communities near the ocean, which neighbors delivered for weeks after power returned.

The last benefit of density is scale. For example, our apartment complex employs a large staff, made economical by a sizable tenant population. During Sandy, that meant many hands were available to coordinate volunteers and tend to emergencies. And there can be safety in numbers: Crudely, going where more people have already chosen to go often means you’ll be safer.

Of course, density has downsides, as well. One is visual. Jacobs’ ideal championed narrow streets with small buildings against Robert Moses’ vision of burly highways-spanning broad skyscrapers. She held, courageously and eloquently, that cities’ character flowed from their randomness. Make a city into a maze of spires, she insisted, and you make it a sterile pod for the elite.

She was right, if the enemy was a boundless zeal for shopping malls and superhighways. But, as America reckons with the true cost of fossil fuels, urban density becomes more defensible—even desirable, as my friend Andrew Blum pointed out years before Sandy.

Policymakers and designers must take care to craft that density in a way that protects everyone, not just the highest bidders. Today, the cost of fortifying my neighborhood against storm damage begins at $335 million and will only climb. Philanthropy and government have unveiled creative, phased ways to fund the cost of including all residents in the planning. But as costs and danger mount, I can’t promise the lucky folks uphill, where it’s drier, will voluntarily share the till to protect everyone.

Danger also lies in designing big swaths of cities to depend on cloud-stored apps and automatic elevators. These dangers become clear in a power failure. When mechanical systems fail, a high-rise cluster must include ramps, rescue crews, and backup on-site power for seniors who can’t easily manage staircases or darkness (or both).

Human contact becomes more important in cities as climate change advances and sea walls and cooling centers proliferate. That may seem a romantic notion in today’s world, in which much of our contact with others takes place online. Jacobs’ street sweeper might work several neighborhoods via an app today, and her full-time parent might be inside tapping on a screen. But in dense urban developments, you have to work pretty hard to miss noticing your neighbors.

Life in a hulking high-rise might not be the graceful “sidewalk ballet” Jane Jacobs extolled. But in an era defined by climate change, density might hold our neighborhoods together.

This guest post is by Alec Appelbaum who writes about how urban design can help cities cope with the stresses of climate change. He teaches at Pratt Institute and runs a teen urban-design curriculum called AllBeforeUs.

8 thoughts on “In Defense of Density: Rethinking Jane Jacobs in the Era of Climate Change

  1. Hernán De Angelis 08/06/2015 / 8:52 am

    Also, in a crowded world, it is utterly irrational to ruin valuable arable land to build new buildings, making it better to build where the loss has already incurred. The problem is how to make megacities livable and human, and somehow green. Nice challenge for the coming years. Thanks for posting!

  2. Flygurl22 08/10/2015 / 10:43 am

    thank you for changing my perspective just a bit. I am a lover of Jane Jacobs and yet I can see your point of view now. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Stephen Harris 08/11/2015 / 5:58 am

    I have to disagree. Good density does not require high rise buildings. Paris, Lyon, Copenhagen, and Barcelona, Venice, and many other old world cities and towns all have great density and great neighborhoods without high rises. Neighborly concern for each other is a something we see in every urban environment; it’s not dependent or facilitated by high rise living.

    • Whitney 08/12/2015 / 9:18 am

      Stephen, as far as climate change goes, denser cities are inherently greener because of the ability to share resources, use less land, and decrease the need to drive. The cities you listed are wonderful, but their limitations on building height also make them way too expensive for working class people to live in. Therefore people leave the city and move to the suburbs thus increasing sprawl, the need for cars, etc. Higher density can help decrease sprawl.

      • Stephen Harris 08/13/2015 / 5:32 am

        Most of the suburbs zone out the working class and high rises are expensive to live in. This leaves only substandard housing for a great many people.

        This doesn’t have to be so. Affordable housing is a political problem, not an urban planning one. I agree that density cuts infrastructure costs and saves energy.

        Cities, towns, and villages that follow the Transect model and form based codes is the appropriate way to arrange our living/working space. Also, there buildings don’t have to exceed five stories to achieve good density. High rises will become too expensive to maintain in an energy starved future.

  4. Michael Lipkan 08/15/2015 / 9:12 am

    Imagine the same density as the high rise described by Alec Applebaum contained in a building that looks like a high rise laid down on its side. Since the structural resources do not have to support the weight of the floors above them, some of their mass can be used to create larger spans for floors which enables larger living spaces. This is a reason for building linear cities.

    • whitney 08/19/2015 / 9:38 am

      It takes up more space that way. That’s one of the big reasons a linear city is not “green” – you use more land that could be otherwise left permeable. Vertical cities make the best use of land, limiting the city footprint to a smaller area and preserving open space. Other species need places to live too. They can’t all live on our rooftops.

      • Michael David Lipkan 12/18/2016 / 7:14 am

        Nonsense! The street grid used to bring things into and out of the vertical city becomes minimized to a more practical optimum with linear cities. This is because most of what you need to support your life is made close to where you live. Linear cities minimize the need for warehouses, distribution centers, delivery trucks, fork lifts, and many other devices that enable grid cities to survive. For a 40,000 mile linear city, most buildings would be 5 stories max. Of course we would still keep the grandeur and spectacle of well designed skyscrapers where isostatic relationship to bedrock allows. Friction piling such as the Petronus Towers, – occasionally. Linear cities allow us to greatly shrink the footprint of our cities by consolidating infrastructure to create more practical and humane urban density.

        Linear City Concepts —

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